(ConservativeSense.com) – On December 26, 1776, George Washington and the Continental Army stealthily crossed frigid and icy waters of the Delaware River in the dead of night. His goal? To launch a rapid surprise attack on Hessian troops stationed throughout Trenton, NJ, securing a decisive win for the General once and for all.
Washington’s strategy was simple: Send three individual groups across at different points. The original intention was for each battalion to play a specific role in the upcoming clash.
- Col. Cadwalader would lead approximately 1,800 troops through the river closer to Burlington, NJ. There, the group would distract and harry Hessian troops, preventing them from joining the larger fight in Trenton.
- Gen. James Ewing was tasked with leading approximately 800 men into defensive positions just outside of Trenton. Their main goal was to prevent soldiers from leaving the area. This, too, was another distraction.
- Just 10 miles up the road at a local ferry crossing, Washington crossed the Delaware in secret with over 2,400 troops. Their purpose was to sneak down into Trenton, surprising Hessians which Ewing had cornered within the town, from their flank.
It might have been an even more decisive win had the whole strategy played out according to plan. Unfortunately, Washington’s Continental Army was about to face extreme hardship at nearly every step along the way.
A Series of Unfortunate Events
As Washington’s ambitious plan unfolded in the dark of Christmas night, problems arose. A blizzard, complete with hail, freezing rain, intense squall, and high winds (the perfect nor’easter) made landfall just as the groups began to approach the three crossing points.
The river itself was choked with chunks of ice, snow and slush. Despite having access to reliable flatboats and ferries, this made all three attempted crossings extremely risky. Boats that struck the ice could very well capsize, dumping men and their ammunition into the frigid waters of the Delaware. Hypothermia was a surety for those who went overboard. Any equipment would instantly become irretrievable.
For the men, who had been struggling with exhaustion, freezing cold temperatures and intense hunger for days, it must have felt like a damning message from fate.
Neither Ewing nor Cadwalader ultimately managed to make the crossing. Washington and his troops, on the other hand, did succeed, but found themselves sorely behind schedule and forced to march across icy, frozen ground filled with snowdrifts.
The deepening snow would have made travel extremely challenging — so much so that even Washington himself contemplated canceling the attack for a time. The only reason he opted to press forward? He felt there was no way to safely or securely retreat.
A Handful of Successes
Despite worsening conditions, and failures along the way, a significant number of troops and equipment did eventually make it across. This was likely a result of help from experienced sailors within the Marblehead regiment under Colonel Glover. Out of all the troops involved, it was these brave men who managed to guide boats across the 300-yard crossing in the middle of the storm.
The Continental Army also succeeded in transferring across a significant amount of artillery. In fact, the same boats ferrying across troops also brought horses, ammunition for the soldiers who would fight within the upcoming battle and some 18 cannons weighing in at several thousand pounds.
Upon arrival, they quickly made camp. The Continental Army began setting up for the coming battle the next morning.
Victory Comes With the Dawn
Washington embarked on his next plan as dawn rose on the riverbanks just outside of Trenton. His first action was to split troops into two separate groups, known as a “column.” He would command the first in tandem with General Greene, attacking from Pennington Road. General Sullivan would lead the second group, launching their attack from River Road through to Trenton instead.
The battle was over relatively quickly. The Continental Army lost just a few soldiers in the clash; Hessians lost far more. The former also managed to seize countless muskets, a significant amount of ammunition, several pieces of artillery and an incredible 1,000 prisoners.
Washington’s troops would go on to fight other battles in coming weeks — including the Battle of Princeton. But crossing the Delaware into Trenton played a pivotal role in the conflict, helping to solidify his position as a leader. It also reinvigorated Congress, encouraging them to throw support behind finally beating back the British for good.
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